Big Data: The New Replicators

Big Data: The New Replicators

Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins may never have envisioned the current era of Big Data, but their shared fundamental principle – "all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities" – may also apply to the new exponential proliferation of 1’s and 0’s in the digital universe. Is there any reason why data - just like ideas, fashions, behaviors, catch-phrases and other mind memes - can not also replicate and evolve, actively looking for ways to propagate themselves in the world? Viewed from this perspective, our computers and digital devices are nothing more than "survival machines" for Big Data -- a mechanism for individual bits of data in the primordial soup of human knowledge to transmit themselves to future generations.


Selfish Gene

That line of thought is just one reason why The Selfish Gene, the groundbreaking 1976 work by Richard Dawkins, was so provocative -- Dawkins suggested that humans were just "survival machines" for our genes - humans were not running the whole evolutionary process, it was our genes. Genes were "selfish" -- they wanted to replicate and survive, and all evolution took place at the genetic level. The other reason the book turned so many heads was because, in chapter 11 ("Memes: the new replicators"), Dawkins made the (at the time) outlandish suggestion that there were other replicators out there that had nothing to do with DNA, stuff that we had never ever thought of as replicators -- like ideas and fashions and language:

"For more than three thousand million years, DNA has been the only replicator worth talking about in the world. But it does not necessarily hold these monopoly rights for all time. Whenever conditions arise in which a new kind of replicator can make copies of itself, the new replicators will tend to take over, and start a kind of evolution of their own."

The word he used to describe this new type of replicator - meme - was a clever linguistic way to establish the link between cultural evolution and genetic evolution. If data represents a new form of replicator, it would function much like the cultural meme, in that it would "parasitize the brain."

Once you've seen a long string of 1's and 0's, there can be little or no doubt that data is capable of replicating at a faster rate than anything we know about in the universe. In the language of Richard Dawkins, data has amazing "copying fidelity." In the case of Big Data, this means that replication can occur at an exponential rate. We are literally drowning in zettabytes of data.

So who's in control now -- humans struggling with a massive influx of data in their lives, or Big Data, which has found a way to propagate exponentially? Until now, the narrative has been that smart humans program dumb machines, which in turn crunch the even dumber data. Now that we've entered the era of Big Data, the data may end up controlling us. The data - by following the inexorable rule of nature outlined by Charles Darwin - may be "smarter" than we thought. 

Where things become both exciting and creepy is if the data replicators (data memes) become truly "selfish" and start to challenge the classic genetic replicators (genes). It's not just that Big Data wants to become Bigger, it's that it may eventually want to out-compete our genetic material. As Dawkins pointed out in The Selfish Gene:

"Once this evolution begins, it will in no necessary sense be subservient to the old. The old gene-selected evolution, by making brains, provided the soup in which the first memes arose. Once self-copying memes had arisen, their own, much faster, kind of evolution took off. We biologists have assimilated the idea of genetic evolution so deeply that we tend to forget that it is only one of many possible kinds of evolution."

In short, the evolution of data (1's and 0's) may soon challenge the evolution of our own human DNA. Concepts like Juan Enriquez's "Life Code" already hint at a future in which our human DNA is expressed as a cascading row of digital bits. That's when we may see a true survival of the fittest, in which the 1's and 0's of Big Data compete with the 1's and 0's of our genetic DNA for supremacy. If, as Dawkins suggested, humans are just "survival machines" for our genes and memes - we better find out a way for us to remain useful for all the Big Data currently propagating in the digital universe, or all those digital bits may decide that they don't need us anymore.

image: Encrypted data of DNA molecule / Shutterstock

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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Credit: Pixabay
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Credit: Hans Hillewaert via Wikicommons
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